Quincy Jones is to music what Steven Spielberg is to film. In a career that has spanned over 60 years, Jones has been a musician, composer, producer, mentor, philanthropist and guiding force that has helped shape the music business, popular culture, and much of society's manners, mores and events (as we know them today). In fact, Jones has led an almost Forrest Gump-like charmed life, utilizing his (undeniable) instinct for spotting raw talent in young performers ( as well as his own) and his technical innovations in musical composition and production, which has led him to collaborations and long-time friendships with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson (and many more).
Now 81 years young, Jones' latest endeavor, both as participant and producer, is the documentary Keep On Keepin' On. Shot over five years by first-time filmmaker, Al Hicks, Keep On Keepin' On documents the story of 93-year-old jazz icon, Clark Terry, who, among his many accomplishments, was mentor to artists such as Quincy Jones and Miles Davis and is one of the few musicians to have performed the bands of both Count Basie and Duke Ellington. In the '60s, Terry broke the color barrier by becoming the first black musician to be hired by the legendary NBC Orchestra on The Tonight Show. It's Terry's friendship with the gifted Justin Kaufin that Hicks' film explores in depth. Kaufin, a 23-year-old piano prodigy who is legally blind, also suffers from crippling stage fright. Over the course of their time together, Terry mentors Kaufin while the young man provides much needed moral support for the frail Terry, when his health takes a perilous turn for the worse. The Radius/TWC release opens in select cities today, September 19.
Quincy Jones sat down with Alex Simon to discuss the film and his remarkable life. Here are some highlights of that chat:
On Keep On Keepin' On: "It's about humanity. I've done forty movies and this is the most humanity I've ever seen on the screen. There's so much truth there, I cry every time I see it."
On the Manson murders: "I had almost bought (Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate's) house on Cielo Drive. The night before the murders, Steve McQueen called me. He said that he wanted Jay Sebring, who was my barber and the most famous hair-stylist in Hollywood, to meet Peter Yates, who'd just directed Steve in Bullitt. So I picked Jay up, took him to meet Peter. On the way, Jay mentioned Sharon was having some people over and that I should join them later on, after I finished work. I said 'Sure.' I completely forgot about it, went home, went to bed. The next morning, Bill Cosby calls me from London, "Did you hear about Jay?" I said "What about Jay? He was with me last night." "He's dead." I said, "Bullshit!" I called up Sebring International, they said "Who is this?" I said "Quincy Jones." "Jay Sebring is dead." Boom! They hung up the phone. I turned on the TV and there were all the bodies spread out on the lawn, with sheets covering them. I knew them all, man. I knew them all. Heavy scene."
On his favorite catch-phrase: "We used to ask each other, 'Are your lips greasy?' That means: are you eating well and is your sex life okay?"
On being a mentor: "Being a good mentor is about love and respect and association. If it happens to you, it's natural that you want to do the same. It happened to me, several times over, so that's why I mentor young kids. It's natural."
On his latest mentee: "His name is Jacob Collier. I dare you to Google him. He is brilliant. He is a motherfucker, man!"
On listening: "I realized very early why God gave us two ears and one mouth: you're supposed to listen twice as much as you talk."
On Michael Jackson: "Michael was an old soul in a young body. He had knowledge and skills that no person that young should logically have. And that's not an easy thing to be."
On being a singer: "Listen to your ten favorite singers, cross-generational, and copy them every day. Sing right along with them. You will not sound like them, but you will learn what it's like to be in the shoes of the best. You get the best shit from the guy who came before you. Pass the baton."
On Clark Terry: "Nobody played like him. I saw him for the first time when I was about 13. Just joy, pure joy."
On being told that when director Sidney Lumet first heard his music, he said "I knew he had violence in his background.": "That's heavy. And he was right. That was Chicago during the Depression, man. They took a switchblade and nailed my hand to the wall and put an icepick to my head. I was seven years old. Yeah, he was right."
On music: "I didn't have a mother, so I said: 'I'm gonna let music be my mother,' and she never let me down, man."
On his brother, Lloyd: "I was seven, Lloyd was six when they took our mother away in strait-jacket to a mental home. She was a very smart woman. Today, they could have cured her. We wound up with a stepmother who was very abusive, and Lloyd just internalized it all. My brother died in 1998, of carcinoma. It broke my heart."
On genealogy: "Jane Fonda's my third cousin. I've got George Washington's blood in me, too, man. And King Edward Longshanks, Johnny Carson, all sorts of amazing cats are my relatives. Alex Haley did my genealogy for me before he died. My dad was black and Welsh. We're all global, man."
On his greatest role models: "Sidney Poitier and Ray Charles. Ray was wild, though. Ray was like part of my blood. He used to teach me music in Braille. He was on heroin for 30 years and black coffee and Dutch gin for 25. He was a genius, but really fucked himself up. And Sidney, he's just...he's just beautiful, man, inside and out."
On his autobiography: "I can't find a book big enough to cover everything I've done in my life, so Taschen is putting one together now. It's going to be an $8,000 book."
On death: "I've lost so many friends over the years...Just in the last month: Joan Rivers, Lauren Bacall, Robin Williams...it's gotten to the point that I can't even process it anymore."
On the whole enchilada: "Life's a trip, man."